April 12, 2004
Mayor White: The first 100 days

Has it been 100 days already for Mayor White? The Chron says they've been pretty good days for him so far, and I'm inclined to agree.

Although a few question marks and "incompletes" dot his report card in the early going, council members and political consultants give White high marks as he learns his way around a city government fraught with opportunities for failure.

Still, conservatives eye him warily. Some political hands say White benefits from the low expectations created during the administration of predecessor Lee Brown, and city workers say they feel like deer in his gunsights.

"He's managed to keep people who want to be critics at bay," said political consultant Craig Varoga, who has managed four Houston mayoral campaigns. "People have shown him respect, sometimes enthusiastic and sometimes begrudging. But both in content and stylistically, he's done well by any standards."


Among White's accomplishments, as of Saturday, the 100th day of his administration:

ĚHe brought in an outsider, Harold L. Hurtt, to lead the Houston Police Department as it rebounds from a lingering DNA crime lab scandal and a sharp increase in the number of police shootings in 2003.

ĚHe launched a program to synchronize or sequence traffic lights to ease street congestion.

ĚHe named new city appointees to the Metro board.

ĚHe created an office on mobility.

ĚHe initiated the "safe clear" program to quickly tow stalled or wrecked vehicles off Katy Freeway.

White also has urged cooperative efforts with Harris County and managed, thus far, to maintain the good will of the City Council.

"There's an absence of acrimony at the council table today," said Allen Blakemore, a local Republican political consultant. "White has been a calming influence on City Hall."


Although acknowledging White's early signs of promise, local political experts also note that he benefited from the contrast between his style and that of his predecessor, Lee Brown.

Although Brown won three terms, he never overcame the negative perception of his first 100 days. The impression that persisted for six years was that Brown was slow to act, lacked a distinct vision and was a poor communicator.

Part of Brown's problem also was the inevitable comparison between him and his action-oriented predecessor, Bob Lanier. Just as Lanier set a standard by which Brown was judged, Brown's image set the bar for White.

White also has enjoyed an extended honeymoon, thanks partly to the completion of some major street projects that had plagued motorists, the Jan. 1 opening of the light rail line and the success of the city's events around Super Bowl XXXVIII.

Even before Brown took office, a faction of seven conservative council members began meeting separately to craft an opposing political agenda. Brown did not counter the opposition.

In contrast, White worked quickly to forge a bipartisan coalition, naming conservatives to lead some high-profile committees.

Granting Mark Ellis the influential Fiscal Affairs Committee post not only gave him a forum for promoting his own ideas, but also put him in a position to help find nonpartisan solutions to the city's financial problems.

White also tapped Michael Berry to lead the Transportation, Infrastructure and Aviation Committee, which has a major role in making good on White's campaign promise to unclog the city's traffic morass.

With those two appointments, White garnered some loyalty, [Democratic political consultant Dan] McClung said.

"He has a couple of extra votes on the council that Mayor Brown didn't have," McClung said. "That's the Lyndon Johnson approach of getting people who are likely to be the most trouble inside the tent, so they aren't inclined to go off half-cocked and take a position against you."

But Blakemore and conservatives on the council warn that White has yet to confront difficult ideological issues.

"He is banking good will right now," Blakemore said. "I have no doubt that I and other conservatives will differ with him. That time will come, but I don't necessarily think everyone is going to go away mad at the end."

I generally agree with all of this. Being a "calming influence" and keeping rival factions in line is a bigger accomplishment than you might think, and after the fractiousness of the last six years, just keeping everyone focused on getting the job done can't be overstated. I don't know how long the Allen Blakemore and Kevin Whiteds of the world will be happy with Mayor White, but I do think that when those differences that Blakemore alludes to do eventually arise, the battles will be more substantive and less acrimonious. Respecting an adversary and making that adversary feel respected by you can go a long, long way.

All that said, I do think there's some rumblings beneath the surface, and they're coming from the Democratic side of the house. The pension shortfall issue has a lot of potential to vex him. The unions are not happy about the proposed special election to opt out of Prop 15 - they see a threat to pension payments to those who are already retired or vested, and they believe changes can be made for current nonvested employees without opting out. There's time to come to an understanding about this, but things can go wrong. Having city workers plus police and firefighters upset at the Mayor doesn't mean defeat at the polls, but getting on their bad side will be a constant irritant and distraction.

Not mentioned in this article, but Mayor White's support for the 2025 Regional Transportation Plan is not very popular among public transportation activists. The story is no longer available on the Chron's website, (and their archives are currently down for service, dammit), but Katy Corridor Coalition leader Polly Ledvina noted that this plan is quite different from what White promised during his campaign. There was already some disappointment with him for not pushing Metro's more expansive rail designs when the ballot initiative was in the works last year. Again, this is perhaps not that large a constituency (though like the unions, it's a vocal one), and you'll never make everyone happy, but it's there and it's worth watching.

Be that as it may, I'm pretty happy with Mayor White, and I expect to continue to be. I do hope that down the line he'll be willing and in a good position to make a real run at a higher office. John Williams speculates today about how that might play out - it's nothing really new to me, but it's a good capsule of the possibilities. Let's get past the next 100 days first, though, OK?

Posted by Charles Kuffner on April 12, 2004 to Local politics | TrackBack